There’s some irony in calling Rogue One “a Star Wars story.” The first of many planned standalone films, which makes an emphatic point about its lack of connection with the rest of the franchise by eschewing the famously upward-scrolling introductory text, leads into the events of Star Wars (1977) more directly than any of the three Lucas-produced prequels. From its first moments, Rogue One ties itself to Star Wars (1977), and as the film nears its superb final act, all of the pieces necessary for the pursuit and capture that introduced audiences to the world of Star Wars thirty-nine years ago are neatly slotted into place. Though it is certainly the most self-contained entry in the franchise to date, Rogue One is speaking the language of the original trilogy.
From a branding perspective, Rogue One is the corollary to last year’s The Force Awakens. It exists to undercut many of the arguments I made this time last year about what The Force Awakens means for the Star Wars franchise going forward: namely, that it is an extension of the Marvel Universe’s Joss Whedon tone into A Galaxy Far, Far Away. Rogue One is the “dark, gritty” older brother to the excited ten year old that is The Force Awakens. Take, for example, the respective droids from the two films, BB-8 and K-2SO. BB-8’s practical effects-based design received immediate praise from the fans still smarting from Lucas’s millennial dedication to computer-generated characters, and its cute, nonthreatening shape paved the way for millions of plastic and plush BB-8s to roll out from under countless Christmas trees. In contrast to BB-8’s nonverbal roly poly, K-2SO is a violent and sarcastic droid with an attitude problem. K-2SO brings an edgy sense of humor to an otherwise somber film, and helps Rogue One present its dark subject matter without veering too sharply into despair by providing the occasional sassy, lampshade-hanging line of dialogue. In short, whereas BB-8 was a gesture to the children in the audience, K-2SO is a peace offering to the jaded older fans who began to see through to Star Wars’ gooey commercial core back when Ewoks were introduced.
Speaking of peace offerings, no discussion of Rogue One is complete without a mention of the characters played by Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “in recent years, Yen has become one of the biggest box office draws in mainland China, thanks to his leading role in fight franchise Ip Man, a biographical kung fu series about Bruce Lee's teacher Yip Man, along with starring parts in major Chinese fantasy hits such as The Monkey King, which earned $181.9 million in 2014.” This casting would seem coincidental if Yen and Jiang’s characters, a blind, Force-sensitive monk and his heavily armed sidekick, didn’t feel like they were in their own movie for many of their scenes. Their death scene captures this dynamic perfectly: while the rest of the cast is off saving the world, these two characters have a quiet, heroic death in a different part of the battlefield, almost as if the scene is being beamed into a different theater. Which, of course, is the exact point: in a post-Batman v. Superman Hollywood, where studios can reasonably assume that even their worst tentpole pictures will rake in enough money from China alone to keep them in the black, the inclusion of characters and storylines aimed at the Chinese audience becomes increasingly mandatory. And, while the characters played by Chinese actors in Rogue One contribute meaningfully to the film, their secondary inclusion in a number of story beats makes them feel like a late addition to the script.
The fact that the two protagonists in Rogue One are a white woman and a hispanic man is yet another indication of the movie’s holistic dedication to marking X in every possible box on the diversity checklist. Fortunately, both Felicity Jones and Diego Luna are perfectly cast in the roles of Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor, respectively. Andor is the film’s standout character, a Rebel agent who introduces us to the ethically murkier aspects of the Rebellion by doing things like killing an informant who is about to be captured by the Empire. By contrast, Jyn is hampered by a script that occasionally doesn’t know what to do with her, making her resistant to and gung-ho about participating in the Rebellion at various times. Similarly, the deep supporting cast, which includes great performances by Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen, Genevieve O’Reilly, and the guy from The Night Of, is hampered by the script and/or decisions made in the editing booth, which often leaves the audience wanting to see more of them. For the first two-thirds of Rogue One, these characters swirl around the MacGuffin (the plans to The Death Star that will eventually fall into Princess Leia’s hands) with occasionally convincing motivations of their own, but the film doesn’t really click until the final act.
Director Gareth Edwards sticks the film’s landing perfectly. While the first two acts feel at times contrived or overwrought, the visuals consistently deliver, from the image of a Star Destroyer hovering over a sandstone city to an imposing obsidian fortress inhabited by none other than Darth Vader, and Edwards brings a sense of geography to his action scenes that was sorely lacking in The Force Awakens. All of this culminates in the film’s third act set piece battle, a classic Star Wars split between ground- and space-based combat that strives to recapture the sublime tension and excitement of the battle for Hoth at the beginning of Empire Strikes Back. The image of the Rebel fleet jumping out of hyperspace is among the finest ever in a Star Wars movie, and seeing it on the big screen reminded me of watching the re-releases in theaters at the tender age of ten. After a rocky start, Rogue One closes out so strongly that it manages to make up for a lot of the flaws that plague it in the early going.
So how does it compare to The Force Awakens? One of the strongest aspects of Rogue One is that, despite its prequel DNA, it tells a complete story, which is an anomaly in the age of franchise pictures which necessarily stretch their stories over multiple installments. By the end of Rogue One, we feel as if we’ve seen the characters grow into heroes we want to root for. Contrast this with The Force Awakens, which asks as many questions as it answers and literally leaves one of its protagonists in a “hope you don’t sleep through the entire second movie” coma, and Rogue One feels like a far more complete film despite the many missed opportunities that peek out from its folds.